"Europe needs to change", says Europe Minister

European Union – Migration/posted workers/Greece/Turkey – Interview given by Mme Nathalie Loiseau, Minister for European Affairs, to RFI and France 24 (excerpts)

Paris, 8 September 2017

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Future of Europe

Q. – As we’ve seen, the French President has major plans for Europe. What’s your own road map, in very concrete terms?

THE MINISTER – In concrete terms, the French President was the only candidate in the presidential election who campaigned for Europe. He was elected; it was a huge relief, felt immediately throughout the European Union. Not only is he travelling all over the EU, and I’m accompanying him, but the whole of Europe is coming to France to meet this pro-European French president. But pro-European doesn’t mean blindly or naïvely pro-European, or thinking that the status quo has to continue.

Europe needs to change. Europe, at any rate, is going to change and go from 28 to 27; it must move faster, push harder, and better respond to European people’s expectations; expectations about protection, whether it be in international trade negotiations – Europe means regulated globalization and globalization with a human face – and also as regards fighting terrorism, as regards the response to the challenges of climate change and migration, and Defence Europe, which means Europe changing considerably compared to what it was only a few months ago.

Posting of Workers Directive/Poland

Q. – So he chose to start the new political season in Europe, with a round of visits to Eastern Europe, where he went to find allies for his first very concrete reform, that of the Posting of Workers Directive. He gained a fair bit of support: the Czechs, Slovaks, Romanians and Bulgarians, and then he also sparked a mini crisis with Poland. So is the best way of overhauling Europe really to clash with countries like that which could also be partners?

THE MINISTER – Poland is a partner, it’s a major country in the European Union. Poland began by saying “we won’t shift [our position] on posted workers; the directive, as has existed since 1996, suits us perfectly”. Since then, and after a few fairly colourful verbal exchanges, Poland shifted, saying in the end that “a revision of the posted workers directive is admittedly necessary”. And we want to talk about fair competition, we want to talk above all about improving the social protection of workers all over Europe. The European project is one of convergence.

Q. – But when you say that Poland recently claimed it was ready for a compromise, it’s ready for a compromise which excludes the transport sector, a very important sector, particularly for Poland: 300,000 lorry drivers. So is it really a compromise in line with your wishes and how you’d like it to be?

THE MINISTER – We’ve no intention of limiting that sector’s development, but nor is there any reason to think that, in any particular sector, people would use the facilities of the posted workers scheme or make exceptions, or that, for example through cabotage, they would engage in unfair competition in national transport against national companies. That’s our position; admittedly some countries prefer to remain vague, saying: OK, but as soon as you meddle with posted workers, you meddle with the transport sector. That’s incorrect.

Q. – Yes, but Poland isn’t alone in this case because the Spanish, Portuguese, Bulgarians, a huge number of countries are involved in the transport sector. And then secondly, in the reform proposed by France, great emphasis is being put on the maximum period of work, 12 months maximum out of a two-year period – isn’t that right?

THE MINISTER – That’s right.

Q. – So does President Macron have a majority for such a strict reform?

THE MINISTER – Time will tell, because obviously we haven’t voted yet. On the other hand, we want to fight abuses, fraud and the use of a particular system to the detriment of fair competition. Regarding the maximum period, when we talk about 12 months maximum in a 24-month limit, what’s actually happening today on the ground?

Q. – There’s no control.

THE MINISTER – The average time posted workers spend in Europe is four months. So when we talk about a 12-month limit, we aren’t being unrealistic, we aren’t preventing posted workers from working, we’re fighting against an abuse of the process. When you stay in a country other than your own for more than a year, you aren’t a posted worker, you’re an expatriate, and with that come other rules which must apply.

Poland/reform of judicial system

Q. – In an article published in the French press, Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian prime minister, issues a warning to the Elysée: “let’s not fight the wrong battle,” he says; “the problem with Poland isn’t about the posting of workers, it’s about the rule of law”. Is France lending enough support – and I stress “enough” – to the European Commission, which still hasn’t had a response from Warsaw about the very controversial reform of its judicial system?

THE MINISTER – Guy Verhofstadt is right on two fronts. First, the posted workers issue isn’t necessarily a problem. I hope and believe we’ll reach a compromise. Here, we come to the nature of Poland’s government today, to its positioning within the European Union, and the positioning poses a problem, as the President has said loud and clear – he was even the first head of state to support what the European Commission was saying; that’s very important. Since then, Angela Merkel has done the same. Why is it very important? Because some people in Warsaw could be tempted in the end to say that the criticism being levelled vis-à-vis the reforms in Poland is criticism by faceless, unelected European bureaucrats who aren’t accountable to their people, so it doesn’t matter. When you have countries such as France and Germany saying: look, the European Union isn’t just a single market, it consists of member states which have come together through common values. And we know the battle Poland has fought; the Polish people are a great people who have inspired us and the whole of Eastern Europe. Their fight has led to every kind of revolution we know.

Q. – And today we’ve got to go and threaten to withdraw the right to vote, we’ve got to go that far?

THE MINISTER – Today we’ve got to move towards a debate; the real questions must be asked in Poland: what does Poland expect from the European Union? What’s it willing to bring to it? Being a member of the European Union means having rights, it also means having duties and, at any rate, a common core and particularly a democratic core of separated powers. There’s no reason to make concessions on this. The countries of the former Soviet Bloc joined the European Union to regain freedom, not to subsequently lose it again.

EU/Hungary/migration

Q. – Another country putting up resistance to European rules is Hungary, which this week suffered a double setback: firstly, the European Union Court of Justice rejected the appeal it lodged with Slovakia because it goes against the plan for the compulsory sharing-out of refugees. And secondly, moreover, it asked Brussels for help to pay for the wall it built on its border with Serbia and Jean-Claude Juncker turned it down flat, saying somewhat bluntly and in no uncertain terms that it’s a country already in receipt of quite a lot of subsidies from the European Union and has to play by the rules. What message has France sent to Hungary and the other Visegrad Group partners?

THE MINISTER – Firstly, diplomacy consists in talking to everyone and not just people who are like you, otherwise we’d inevitably not talk to many other states. The President has already met the Visegrad Group, in Brussels in June on the sidelines of the European Council. It was a powerful gesture, recognition of the group’s existence and importance, and it was understood as such by Visegrad’s four members.

Secondly, you talk about the management of migration flows. As far as we, and the Commission, are concerned, managing a huge influx of asylum seekers – as has been the case since 2015 – requires a sense of responsibility and solidarity; the two go together. The countries on the front line taking in asylum seekers – Greece, Italy – are responsible for dealing with their asylum applications, but when a million asylum seekers arrive, as happened in 2015, all the countries of the European Union have to show solidarity. You can’t pick and choose the policies and measures which are favourable to you in the European Union and discard the others; they’re a whole package.

Greece/economic situation

Q. – So President Emmanuel Macron wants to go to every European capital as soon as possible. There’s one we’re forgetting; this week he was in Greece, where he delivered a major speech on democracy. (…) Greece is of course the cradle of democracy, but it has also in more recent history been the epicentre of the financial crisis which almost swept away the Euro Area, which revealed its weaknesses, and it’s a country still crippled by debt of 180% of GDP. Do we have to wait for the German election before we do Greece a few favours?

THE MINISTER – Firstly, it’s a country which is pulling through, and that’s what Emmanuel Macron wanted to say and pay tribute to by going to Greece, to pay tribute to the huge efforts the authorities and Greek people have made. There’s been unimaginable austerity in France, and at times it’s tempting to say to our fellow citizens, when we bring up various measures: “listen, look at what other countries in the European Union have been able to do; they deserve our respect for those measures and their implementation”. Today, Greece is emerging from a difficult situation, growth is returning, Greece issued a bond on the market at the beginning of the summer which was well received…

Q. – So when will the reduction of Greece’s debt – because that’s what the government and Greek people want – be realized?

THE MINISTER – Firstly, France has always been at Greece’s side, since the outset of the crisis – France in general, Emmanuel Macron in particular, even before he became President of the Republic. We believe in Greece’s ability to come through this, and that was the message. (…) We’ll stand alongside Greece, we’ll keep an eye on investability in Greece, and moreover French businesses believe in Greece today, many French businesses didn’t leave Greece, even at the toughest times, and a number of others are returning. Business people and French business leaders accompanied the President to Greece. (…)./.

Published on 20/09/2017

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